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Crist Aiming to Leave a Mark on His Final Session

In two weeks, Gov. Charlie Crist will embark on his final legislative session in Tallahassee, his last chance to push through an agenda that could be his legacy when he vacates the governor's mansion in January 2011.

He's laid out a few proposals for the spring session, tweaking a class size provision in the constitution and expanding a private school voucher program, both of which will likely pass the Legislature without much difficulty. But some of his other plans, a gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe and his 2011 budget, have been shouted down so far by legislators, leaving observers wondering how much clout Crist has in his final ten months as the state's chief executive.

“The ability to control the legislative agenda is greatly diminished when you're weak or a lame duck,” said Susan McManus, a University of South Florida political science professor.

There have been signs that Crist's influence has been waning. Last month, a House panel unanimously quashed a compact negotiated by the governor and the Seminole Tribe that would have allowed the tribe to offer certain card games and give the state a cut of the proceeds. The meeting where the vote took place lasted all of eight minutes.

The governor, in his negotiations, had expanded gaming further than what lawmakers were comfortable with, said Rep. Bill Galvano, the chairman of the House gaming committee. Senate President Jeff Atwater also said that if there was going to be a deal between the state and the tribe, it would be shaped by the Legislature.

The tribe, and governor, would essentially have to take it or leave it.

Crist, for his part, has stuck to the line that the Legislature should approve a deal because it would mean millions of extra dollars for the state's public schools. He's also said publicly that he remains hopeful a deal will ultimately be signed. But behind the scenes, Galvano said prior to the vote, the governor had not done much lobbying on the issue.

The governor's budget proposal for next year, unveiled at the end of January, also came under immediate scrutiny by legislators. Though lawmakers have routinely ignored some of Crist's budget recommendations in the past, they have largely done so in silence.

But a few weeks ago in an appropriations meeting, Health Care budget Chair Denise Grimsley, R-Lake Placid, told Crist budget director Jerry McDaniel, “there's nothing here I can use,” and Rep. Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City, told him “you've got to start over.”

McManus noted that legislators are emboldened “to do their own thing” right now, especially given the anti-incumbent, anti-government ardor that seems to be gripping the electorate. And because they have to answer to a specific district rather than the entire state, lawmakers may feel political pressure to appear in opposition to the governor, she added.

“I think it's just a year of uncertainty and lame ducks always have uncertainty, but I think it's particularly difficult with the anti-incumbent fervor and the budget situation,” McManus said.

Crist, however, does hold a few trump cards, observers say.

Number one is the line item veto, said former senator and House Speaker Dan Webster.

“Was Bob Graham effective in his last term? Yeah, he was pretty effective. As was Jeb Bush, yeah, and Lawton Chiles,” said Webster, who was speaker during the end of Chiles' term. “I think that one tool is pretty powerful.”

The line item veto allows the governor to simply cross out portions of the state's budget bill, which means Crist could cancel out decisions made by legislators during the budget process. More money could go toward Crist's priorities rather than the Legislature's if Crist chooses to wield his veto pen come May when the House and Senate produce a budget.

“Because the governor in Florida has that ability, I think they maintain some pretty good opportunities to be effective,” Webster said.

Crist's potential future employment also gives him some political capital. The governor has an unexpectedly tight Republican primary for the open U.S. Senate seat. But if he winds up in Washington D.C., many state lawmakers will still want him in their corner.

“He's really not a lame duck, he's running for higher office,” said former Rep. Ron Greenstein, who is now a lobbyist in Tallahassee. “So I think he's still in a very strong position to get things done.”

A spokesman for Crist said that the governor's biggest priorities for the session include passing a Seminole gaming compact and restoring the Florida Forever program, which protects 2.4 million acres of springs, coastline, forests and other sensitive lands.

“The governor believes in continuing to work hard, everyday, for the people of Florida,” said spokesman Sterling Ivey in an e-mail message. “He will work with the Florida Legislature to pass these important initiatives.”

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